WASHINGTON — The dismissal of a prisoner's $10 million lawsuit this week against Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama shows how nagging litigation comes with the political territory.
On Thursday, a trial judge in Washington threw out the lawsuit by DeJuan Thornton-Bey, an Illinois native now serving time in a federal Supermax prison in Colorado. The lawsuit charging Obama with failing to investigate allegations of judicial corruption was doomed from the start.
"Members of Congress are absolutely immune from lawsuits, such as this one, arising from the performance of their official duties," U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts said.
Roberts needed only a few sentences to get rid of a case filed less than a month ago. But it's not the only lawsuit of its kind still poking at a prominent politician and, if history is any guide, it won't be the last.
These lawsuits are often, although not always, filed by aggrieved inmates. They usually collapse quickly, but can drag on for years. They are frequently filed against multiple politicians at one time. They say something about how courts work, and about the cost of political celebrity.
Obama and his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, are even common defendants in several cases.
In one case still pending before U.S. District Court here, a prisoner named Antoine Gomis accuses the two senators and assorted others of "reputational injuries." The complaint is handwritten, as many such complaints seem to be.
Obama and McCain are likewise the sole defendants in a more professionally appearing lawsuit filed last April by Pennsylvania resident Robert DiGian. DiGian quoted the 19th century German philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer, observing that many truths are frequently ridiculed at first, before expanding on a demand that Obama and McCain withdraw from the presidential race for allegedly covering up hate crimes.
"The McCain and Obama campaign camps perhaps should be advised, by an expert or some political confidante, to voluntarily resign from the U.S. Senate membership to save face and avoid indictment," DiGian wrote.
The lawsuit will almost certainly be dismissed soon, as DiGian appeared to miss a Sept. 4 deadline for filing additional documents. Nonetheless, it imposes a cost. Robert Bauer and Robert P. Howard, attorneys for Obama and McCain respectively, both had to file multi-page formal motions urging a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
Sometimes, of course, politicians can be named in lawsuits that are both substantive and consequential. McCain's co-authorship of a sweeping 2002 campaign-finance law earned him a defendant's spot on some lawsuits.
Courthouses, moreover, can become dangerous places for politicians. The Republican who originally challenged Obama in 2004 for the Illinois Senate seat, Jack Ryan, was undone when his divorce records were made public. Political opposition researchers always comb courthouses for dirt.
Often, though, politicians seem to be targeted strictly for their prominence, by plaintiffs with more time than evidence. These suits can evaporate in the blink of an eye. In August 2007, for instance, a prisoner sued Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. A trial judge in Washington dismissed the case in less than a day.
Currently, an inmate in California's Ironwood State Prison named Tyrral Farrow Cannon is attempting to sue Obama and other lawmakers in U.S. District Court in Illinois. While a long shot, Cannon's suit does require both the defendants and the judicial system to pay attention.
"Although the rambling, 30-page complaint is difficult to follow, (Cannon) appears to be challenging both the legality of his incarceration and the conditions of his confinement in California," U.S. District Judge William T. Hart declared Aug. 29.
Noting that Cannon had previously filed at least 43 other civil rights or habeas corpus lawsuits, Hart denied the prisoner's request to proceed without first paying a $350 courthouse fee.
Thornton-Bey, too, faced a potential financial hurdle, as authorities initially sought to determine whether his prison account had the requisite $350. Thornton, a former Chicago resident, was sentenced in 2002 to 32 years in prison following conviction on drug and firearms charges.
He sued Obama after the Illinois senator's office declined to investigate allegations of judicial corruption.
"While we are unable to look into this matter directly, we are hopeful that you find resolve to your satisfaction in the near future," Jennifer Mason, Obama's director of constituent services, wrote in an August 2006 letter included in the case file. She then added, "Good luck in your future endeavors."
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